The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Tess Gallagher’s “Willingly” is a poem in free verse with forty lines divided into four stanzas. The title suggests the cheerful act of giving one’s self or doing a task voluntarily; its function, however, is to establish an ironic mood. While most people would be quite pleased to wake up to the sight of their homes being freshly painted, the speaker is anything but happy. She feels violated and erased by the very action that would bring so many other people joy. Just as her house is inanimate and unable to stop itself from being painted and therefore manipulated, the speaker is just as passive and is unable to exert any will over her life at this time. The title is ironic because to give something willingly one must own and control that which is to be given.

In the second stanza, the narrator’s home is bathed in a strange “new light.” She reflects that even in her sleep she felt the strokes of the painter’s brush, or “the space between them,” bearing down on her. The poet compares those ominous strokes with “an accumulation/ of stars” that arrange themselves “over the roofs of entire cities.” By equating the power the painter wields with every stroke of his brush to the unyielding strength of the universe, the painter becomes godlike. Under the incredible force of the painter’s “steady arm,” both the speaker and her house begin to disappear, to become changed by an immutable force.

The third stanza again...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The first nine lines of the opening stanza are written in the first person. The first-person point of view allows readers to feel as if they are eavesdropping on the speaker’s thoughts and allows them to feel the poet’s presence intimately. It is important to note that the last line of the first stanza and the remaining three stanzas are written in the second person. The second person is used in this poem to make the reader take the place of the first-person narrator. Readers who compare the lines “I look back on myself asleep in the dream/ I could not carry awake” to “Some paint has dropped onto your shoulder” will notice that this removal of the first-person speaker who drew them into the poem leaves them with the rather surreal feeling that the rest of the narrative is unfolding in their own minds. With each stroke of the painter’s brush, the person who spoke to the readers from the perspective of the first-person point of view becomes an increasingly distant memory until she is finally erased altogether. This switch reflects the major theme of self-erasure in “Willingly.”

Enjambment (the running over of the meaning from one line into the next line) is used effectively to emphasize the way the speaker interprets the events in the poem that cause her to feel as if she is a nonentity in her own front yard. For example, as the painter’s careful strokes “whiten the web” of turmoil in the third stanza, the speaker “faithlessly”...

(The entire section is 469 words.)